In a city where high-end hairdressers charge upward of $500 an appointment, it was only a matter of time before tattoos ceased to be a bargain.
“It’s something that’s going to last forever,” said Jack Powers, a 22-year-old operations manager at a logistics company, putting aside the stuff about death and body decomposition. “You got to go to the best of the best.”
For him, that is Bang Bang, a Lower East Side tattoo parlor, where a sleeve of black and gray Catholic imagery — Jesus, Saint Peter, the Virgin Mary — from one of the younger artists on staff took six or seven sessions and cost about $20,000. “My own money,” Mr. Powers said, to raised eyebrows.
Part of the price is attributable to a so-called celebrity tax: Professionals like personal trainers and cosmetic dermatologists can often double or triple prices after getting publicity from famous clients.
It was Rihanna who put the “bang” in Bang Bang.
She stumbled upon the shop’s owner, Keith McCurdy, 11 years ago, when he was working at a tattoo and piercing shop on West Fourth Street, one of the few remaining blocks in Lower Manhattan that hasn’t been transformed by luxury-goods boutiques.
Rihanna came in for a nipple piercing and walked out with several lines of Sanskrit inked on her hip.
Later, Mr. McCurdy went on tour with Katy Perry, who had him tattoo her and the crew in between concerts. He opened his current shop in 2014, and the next year HarperCollins published “Bang Bang: My Life in Ink,” a memoir and coffee table book filled with testimonials from his storied clientele. But Mr. McCurdy’s recent success has as much to do with his savvy management decisions as his own artistry.
In a notoriously xenophobic and sexist business, he has pulled together a diverse team of tattooers, operating almost like a talent agent — albeit one who has a pistol tattooed on his neck (hence his nickname, given to the store) and smokes weed with his artists. “I have to play both sides of the ball,” he said on a recent Thursday.
Eva Karabudak, 32, who is Turkish and one of the shop’s most in-demand tattooers, duplicates famous paintings by Van Gogh and Klimt. Oscar Akermo, a wispy 22-year-old Swede, does Daliesque portraiture in black and gray ink.
Sanghyuk Ko, 37, known professionally as Mr. K, is a former graphic designer from Korea with a specialty in fine line portraiture that looks like what would happen if you successfully applied No. 2 pencil to the skin.
Last month, Bang Bang opened a second shop, on Grand Street in SoHo, mere feet from an Alexander Wang store. Mr. McCurdy said the cost of the renovation there was north of $1 million. A look around provides little reason to doubt him.
The floors are covered in freshly pressed concrete. A wall of screens displays promotional material about the store’s artists, all shot by a full-time videographer. A large aquarium filled with koi runs across the back wall, by a black steel staircase leading to a downstairs lounge where Fiji water is served by the caseload.
“It’s like the Apple store in here,” Miley Cyrus said Saturday night, when she showed up with a friend to have her mother’s signature inked on her arm and then decided to get a second tattoo on her ankle: slang for part of the female genitalia.
For four hours, I was at the next station over, getting a bird tattooed on my arm, at a price that exceeded my last paycheck. (The New York Times does not take freebies.)
The fancy digs, celebrity adherents and notorious waits for appointments have earned Mr. McCurdy a fair amount of ire in the industry. “I’m public enemy No. 1,” he said.
Getting Into the Skin Game
In a movie about his life, Mr. McCurdy, 32, might be played by Seth Rogen: also a bearish guy who is both delightful and aggressive, nerdy and cool, stoner-ish and Type A — an empath who loves a brawl.
Although Mr. McCurdy has made millions of dollars with his craft, he has no interest in fancy watches, art or real estate. Instead, he sermonizes about simple pleasures like Popsicles and amusement parks, particularly Disney World, which he visits multiple times a year with his employees and sees as a metaphor for what America (and his business) should be: futuristic, easy, open to all races, ages and religions.
“They’re the best people in the world at tricking your eye,” Mr. McCurdy said of Disney, sitting in the lounge on Grand Street, wearing Y3 sweat shorts and a black $10 Goonies T-shirt from Target.
On his right arm was a photo-realistic tattoo of the monorail arriving at Epcot Center inked by Mr. Akermo in April. “Disney World is a machine where you can’t see any of the seams, and it’s actually bigger than Manhattan,” Mr. McCurdy said. (As for the oft-decried cost of visiting the Magic Kingdom, “anything worth it isn’t cheap,” he said.)
Mr. McCurdy’s own story is a triumph of American possibility. He grew up in Claymont, Del. His father, Vincent Lacava, was 16 when Keith was born, and his mother, Susan McCurdy, was 17.
Ms. McCurdy and Mr. Lacava broke up soon after. He went off to college, and she dropped out of high school and became a stripper. “There was no shame around it,” said Mr. McCurdy, who dedicated his book to her. “She was a feminist, and she paid the bills.”
Eventually, she opened a cleaning business, relying heavily on her son. “One of his chores was to rake the leaves,” Ms. McCurdy said. “I remember one day, I walked onto the deck and he had the other kids raking them for him. But he got it done. He was always a delegator.”
At 15, Mr. McCurdy pressured his mother to let him get a tattoo and they struck a deal. If he made the honor roll — he was not a good student — he could get one. Soon enough, they drove to a nearby parlor, where Mr. McCurdy got what he describes as “the cheesiest version of the Superman logo you have ever seen.”
Unlike Clark Kent, though, he dropped out of high school, bought a tattoo kit online for $268 and began practicing on a cousin, Edward Borew, now the manager of the store.
In 2004, Mr. McCurdy got his first job as a tattooer, working at Rage of the Needle in New Castle, Del. “If I made $200 a day, it was awesome,” Mr. McCurdy said. “The most money I got was from doing tattoo parties in clients’ houses. Then I could make five or six hundred dollars in a night.”
Less than a year later, Mr. McCurdy moved to New York, where he lived with his father, who was working as a video-game designer, in a tiny Midtown studio. Mr. McCurdy took a job tattooing the most inebriated among the Verrazano bridge set, at a West 4th street shop called Crazy Fantasy that also sold sex toys and did piercings, and shared a bathroom with the Papaya Dog next door.
Mr. Borew had arrived in New York soon after Mr. McCurdy and had gone to work for Andre Balazs at the Mercer Hotel, where he earned a doctorate in tending to fancy people. Mr. McCurdy moved from Crazy Fantasy to what he called a “slightly less disgusting” shop, Whatever Tattoo.
Moving the Needle
Back then, tattoo stars were generally known for having a distinctive signature. Ed Hardy, based in the Bay Area, fused Japanese techniques with cartoonish American imagery. Mark Mahoney and Freddy Negrete of the Shamrock Social Club in Los Angeles construct smoky, noirish portraits.
Mr. McCurdy is a jack-of-all-trades with a refreshing lack of pretension about his art. “I just want to do fun tattoos,” he said. That has made him popular with celebrities, who often want tattooers to execute their own ideas.
In the foreword for Mr. McCurdy’s book, Rihanna writes that Mr. McCurdy did not even know who she was the night she rolled into Whatever, to her delight: “I remember thinking this guy is gangsta.”
Impressed by the Freddy Krueger tattoo he had inked on the shop’s manager and his input on where to place the Sanskrit message, she not only returned for more tattoos but also connected various people in her orbit to Mr. McCurdy.
One was Chris Brown, her boyfriend at the time. Another was Ms. Perry, of whom Mr. McCurdy, bless him, also had no real awareness when she handed him her arm.
After tabloid coverage, demand for Mr. McCurdy’s services grew exponentially. He bounced between Last Rites and East Side Ink, two of New York’s best known high-end tattoo shops, burnishing his star and alienating his bosses.
“People told me I stepped on people to get where I am,” Mr. McCurdy said. “I don’t think I’ve stepped on people, but I sometimes pushed them out of my way. Wouldn’t everybody?”
At East Side Ink he determined that he was the shop’s biggest earner and pressed for an ownership stake in the business. “That was never going to happen,” said Josh Lord, the owner.
At the time, Mr. McCurdy and his wife, Etsuko Tsujimoto, had a young daughter and another one on the way. Soon, he started making arrangements to open his own shop and made offers to a number of people on the staff.
Mr. Lord found out about this, and Mr. McCurdy was ultimately fired.
Today, Mr. Lord calls Mr. McCurdy “the worst person” who ever worked for him, which seems slightly out of sync with the offense committed.
Unfazed, Mr. McCurdy professes a continued desire to steal Mr. Lord’s best artist, Cheo Park. “I’d make him more money too,” Mr. McCurdy said, adding that it has been a pleasure to “kick their” butts, referring to East Side.
Paul Booth, the renowned owner of Last Rites, agreed to give Mr. McCurdy a chair while he was setting up his business. But when Mr. McCurdy was ready to go, he offered jobs to people on Mr. Booth’s staff.
In an interview last week, Mr. Booth accused Mr. McCurdy of being a sellout, a man who made “tattooing dumb little things” on celebrities a bigger priority than the art itself.
“You can run for the money or you can run for the art,” Mr. Booth said. “I’m sure I could be much richer, but I lay down at night with my integrity intact.”
“Please,” said Mr. Borew, sitting with his cousin. “I was with Paul Booth when Nicolas Cage called him about doing a tattoo. Paul didn’t even get to do it and he was so excited.”
The first Bang Bang, on Clinton Street, opened in 2013. Investment money came from Mr. Lacava. But according to Mr. McCurdy, the relationship between father and son deteriorated quickly. “He was supposed to be handling business matters — financial, insurance and everything entailing back of the house,” Mr. McCurdy said. “It was a disaster. For months, we didn’t even have furniture.”
In a text message, Mr. Lacava said, “Although Keith and I have different views about what happened with the shop, I wish him continued success.”
One day, employees strolled up to the store and found that someone had changed the locks and removed everything overnight.
His shop gone and his marriage suffering, Mr. McCurdy moved onto an air mattress in Mr. Borew’s apartment in Queens and spent several months tattooing clients including Selena Gomez at a small studio he rented in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He and his wife went into counseling with Karen Bridbord, a therapist and executive coach.
Soon, Dr. Bridbord was advising Mr. McCurdy on how to restart his business. He found a new store (on Broome Street), borrowed money from friends and opened just as Instagram was taking off.
Mr. McCurdy posted selfies with his famous clients and sent direct messages to talented artists around the globe, sponsoring some of their visas. He made hiring women a priority and was clear with his staff that tattoo-world misogyny would not be tolerated beneath his roof.
“My daughter is 9,” he said. “She has a feminist button on her backpack and she doesn’t really know what it means, but I want her to have the sense that she can do anything she wants with her life. Sixty-five percent of our customers are women. And we have employees and they have rights.”
Inevitably, there has been some #MeTattoo.
In 2016, Mr. McCurdy hired JonBoy from West Fourth Tattoo. As the tattooer to Kylie and Kendall Jenner, JonBoy was immediately one of Bang Bang’s biggest draws. But he nevertheless had what Mr. McCurdy described as a “rough start.”
The issue, JonBoy said in an interview, was “the perverted jokes I told, the way I behaved in the presence of females.” After four months, Mr. McCurdy and Dr. Bridbord determined that JonBoy had to go. At least for a while.
They provided him with the name of a therapist and told him to stay in touch. A year later, he was hired back, on the condition that he remain in treatment. “I see someone every week, and it’s been so helpful,” he said.
And the celebrities kept coming.
One is Justin Bieber, who has spent more than $60,000 on Mr. McCurdy’s services. He pays a premium to transport his tattooer between coasts and around the world.
“Usually it’s a last-minute thing,” Mr. Bieber said by phone last week, as Mr. McCurdy patched him into a call with me and chuckled in the background. “That makes it difficult on Bang, but he always goes out of his way to make me a priority and it’s why I love him so much. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m in Panama. Can you come out?’” (For $10,000 he did. “I’ve got kids,” Mr. McCurdy said. “Tell me he’s not awesome.”)
Another recent client is the model Cara Delevingne, who in their first session passed him a blunt so strong that he could barely keep his eyes open. The hyper-detailed lion Mr. McCurdy inked on her index finger that night earned jeers from “serious” tattoo people, who regard micro-tattoos with disdain. But who cares? Technically it was perfect. “He takes my wacky ideas and turns them into something feminine and beautiful and sexy,” Ms. Delevingne said.
And sometimes discreet. Mr. McCurdy agreed to tattoo her current favorite food, bacon, only if she put it on the bottom of one of her feet. In retrospect, she thinks that was a fine decision. “I might become a vegan,” she said.
Occasionally, Mr. McCurdy’s tattooers question whether something gets lost as the prices ascend into the stratosphere and clients from Wall Street plunk down thousands of dollars to ink their arms with depictions of the charging bull in the financial district.
“There are great people who can’t afford to get tattooed by us,” said Balazs Bercsenyi, the 29-year-old artist from Hungary who inked me.
One night, a man delivering an Amazon package to the store asked if Kristi Walls worked there. “She used to be my tattooer,” he said. “But that was when she cost less.”
But mostly, Mr. Bercsenyi and the other artists are enjoying the premium fees they command.
Mr. Akermo recently bought a Royal Oak, the $16,000 octagonal watch from Audemars Piguet. JonBoy and Mr. K are hooked on Gucci. Mr. McCurdy has Amazon stock (“I bought at 700,” he said) and got himself a nice new set of teeth.
“Two and a half years ago,” he said, opening his mouth for all to see. “Dr. Apa. A-P-A. He plays Nas in his office and drives Ferraris. He’s the G.”
With the SoHo store up and running, Mr. McCurdy is, inevitably, mulling other brand extensions. Later this year, he is introducing a line of tattoo aftercare products. He’d also like to do a show for Netflix and open a Bang Bang in Los Angeles.
“With a pool on the roof,” he said. “New York is so boring.”
Jacob Bernstein is a reporter for the Styles desk. In addition to writing profiles of fashion designers, artists and celebrities, he has focused much of his attention on L.G.B.T. issues, philanthropy and the world of furniture design. @bernsteinjacob